US in Throes of Unexceptional Imperial Decline

Empires built on dominance achieved through a powerful, expansionist military necessarily become ever more authoritarian, corrupt and dysfunctional, writes William J. Astore. Ultimately, they are fated to fail.

Black Hawk helicopters fly overhead during centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, Nov. 11, 2021. (DoD, Jack Sanders)

By William J. Astore

All around the U.S. things are falling apart. Collectively, Americans are experiencing national and imperial decline. Can America save itself? Is the country, as presently constituted, even worth saving?

For me, that last question is radical indeed. From my early years, I believed deeply in the idea of America. I knew this country wasn’t perfect, of course, not even close. Long before the 1619 Project, I was aware of the “original sin” of slavery and how central it was to our history. I also knew about the genocide of Native Americans. (As a teenager, my favorite movie — and so it remains — was Little Big Man, which pulled no punches when it came to the white man and his insatiably murderous greed.)

Nevertheless, America still promised much, or so I believed in the 1970s and 1980s. Life here was simply better, hands down, than in places like the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China. That’s why we had to “contain” communism — to keep them over there, so they could never invade our country and extinguish our lamp of liberty.

And that’s why I joined America’s Cold War military, serving in the Air Force from the presidency of Ronald Reagan to that of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. And believe me, it proved quite a ride. It taught this retired lieutenant colonel that the sky’s anything but the limit.

In the end, 20 years in the Air Force led me to turn away from empire, militarism and nationalism. I found myself seeking instead some antidote to the mainstream media’s celebrations of American exceptionalism and the exaggerated version of victory culture that went with it (long after victory itself was in short supply).

started writing against the empire and its disastrous wars and found likeminded people at TomDispatch — former imperial operatives turned incisive critics like Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich, along with sharp-eyed journalist Nick Turse and, of course, the irreplaceable Tom Engelhardt, the founder of those “tomgrams” meant to alert America and the world to the dangerous folly of repeated U.S. global military interventions.

But this isn’t a plug for TomDispatch. It’s a plug for Americans to free their minds as much as possible from the thoroughly militarized matrix that pervades America. That matrix drives imperialism, waste, war and global instability to the point where, in the context of the conflict in Ukraine, the risk of nuclear Armageddon could imaginably approach that of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

[Related: Lessons for Armistice Day 2022]

As wars — proxy or otherwise — continue, America’s global network of 750-odd military bases never seems to decline. Despite upcoming cuts to domestic spending, just about no one in Washington imagines Pentagon budgets doing anything but growing, even soaring toward the trillion-dollar level, with militarized programs accounting for 62 percent of federal discretionary spending in 2023.

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An engorged Pentagon — its budget for 2024 is expected to rise to $886 billion in the bipartisan debt-ceiling deal reached by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — guarantees one thing: a speedier fall for the American empire. Chalmers Johnson predicted it; Andrew Bacevich analyzed it.

The biggest reason is simple enough: incessant, repetitive, disastrous wars and costly preparations for more of the same have been sapping America’s physical and mental reserves, as past wars did the reserves of previous empires throughout history. (Think of the short-lived Napoleonic empire, for example.)

Known as “the arsenal of democracy” during World War II, America has now simply become an arsenal, with a military-industrial-congressional complex intent on forging and feeding wars rather than seeking to starve and stop them.

The result: a precipitous decline in the country’s standing globally, while at home Americans pay a steep price of accelerating violence (2023 will easily set a record for mass shootings) and “carnage” (Donald Trump’s word) in a once proud but now much-bloodied “homeland.”

Lessons from History on Imperial Decline

British regiment marching to the front line during Battle of the Somme, 1916. (Ernest Brooks, Imperial War Museums, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

I’m a historian, so please allow me to share a few basic lessons I’ve learned. When I taught World War I to cadets at the Air Force Academy, I would explain how the horrific costs of that war contributed to the collapse of four empires: Czarist Russia, the German Second Reich, the Ottoman empire and the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Habsburgs.

Yet even the “winners,” like the French and British empires, were also weakened by the enormity of what was, above all, a brutal European civil war, even if it spilled over into Africa, Asia and indeed the Americas.

And yet after that war ended in 1918, peace proved elusive indeed, despite the Treaty of Versailles, among other abortive agreements. There was too much unfinished business, too much belief in the power of militarism, especially in an emergent Third Reich in Germany and in Japan, which had embraced ruthless European military methods to create its own Asiatic sphere of dominance. Scores needed to be settled, so the Germans and Japanese believed, and military offensives were the way to do it.

As a result, civil war in Europe continued with World War II, even as Japan showed that Asiatic powers could similarly embrace and deploy the unwisdom of unchecked militarism and war. The result: 75 million dead and more empires shattered, including Mussolini’s “New Rome,” a “thousand-year” German Reich that barely lasted 12 of them before being utterly destroyed, and an Imperial Japan that was starved, burnt out, and finally nuked. China, devastated by war with Japan, also found itself ripped apart by internal struggles between nationalists and communists.

As with its prequel, even most of the “winners” of World War II emerged in a weakened state. In defeating Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union had lost 25 to 30 million people. Its response was to erect, in Winston Churchill’s phrase, an “Iron Curtain” behind which it could exploit the peoples of Eastern Europe in a militarized empire that ultimately collapsed due to its wars and its own internal divisions.

Yet the U.S.S.R. lasted longer than the post-war French and British empires. France, humiliated by its rapid capitulation to the Germans in 1940, fought to reclaim wealth and glory in “French” Indochina, only to be severely humbled at Dien Bien Phu. Great Britain, exhausted from its victory, quickly lost India, that “jewel” in its imperial crown, and then Egypt in the Suez debacle.

War refugees in France, June 1940. (Bundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

There was, in fact, only one country, one empire, that truly “won” World War II: the United States, which had been the least touched (Pearl Harbor aside) by war and all its horrors. That seemingly never-ending European civil war from 1914 to 1945, along with Japan’s immolation and China’s implosion, left the U.S. virtually unchallenged globally.

America emerged from those wars as a superpower precisely because its government had astutely backed the winning side twice, tipping the scales in the process, while paying a relatively low price in blood and treasure compared to allies like the Soviet Union, France, and Britain.

History’s lesson for America’s leaders should have been all too clear: when you wage war long, especially when you devote significant parts of your resources — financial, material, and especially personal — to it, you wage it wrong. Not for nothing is war depicted in the Bible as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

France had lost its empire in World War II; it just took later military catastrophes in Algeria and Indochina to make it obvious. That was similarly true of Britain’s humiliations in India, Egypt, and elsewhere, while the Soviet Union, which had lost much of its imperial vigor in that war, would take decades of slow rot and overstretch in places like Afghanistan to implode.

Meanwhile, the United States hummed along, denying it was an empire at all, even as it adopted so many of the trappings of one. In fact, in the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington’s leaders would declare America the exceptional “superpower,” a new and far more enlightened Rome and “the indispensable nation” on planet Earth.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, its leaders would confidently launch what they termed a Global War on Terror and begin waging wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, as in the previous century they had in Vietnam. (No learning curve there, it seems.) In the process, its leaders imagined a country that would remain untouched by war’s ravages, which was we now know — or do we? — the height of imperial hubris and folly.

President George W. Bush at the Offutt AFB command bunker on Sept. 11, 2001. (George W. Bush Presidential Library, Eric Draper, Wikimedia Commons)

For whether you call it fascism, as with Nazi Germany, communism, as with Stalin’s Soviet Union, or democracy, as with the United States, empires built on dominance achieved through a powerful, expansionist military necessarily become ever more authoritarian, corrupt, and dysfunctional.

Ultimately, they are fated to fail. No surprise there, since whatever else such empires may serve, they don’t serve their own people. Their operatives protect themselves at any cost, while attacking efforts at retrenchment or demilitarization as dangerously misguided, if not seditiously disloyal.

That’s why those like Chelsea ManningEdward Snowden and Daniel Hale, who shined a light on the empire’s militarized crimes and corruption, found themselves imprisoned, forced into exile, or otherwise silenced.

Even foreign journalists like Julian Assange can be caught up in the empire’s dragnet and imprisoned if they dare expose its war crimes. The empire knows how to strike back and will readily betray its own justice system (most notably in the case of Assange), including the hallowed principles of free speech and the press, to do so.

Julian Assange at the Stop the War Coalition rally at Trafalgar Square, London, Oct. 8, 2011. (Haydn, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Perhaps he will eventually be freed, likely as not when the empire judges he’s approaching death’s door. His jailing and torture have already served their purpose. Journalists know that to expose America’s bloodied tools of empire brings only harsh punishment, not plush rewards. Best to look away or mince one’s words rather than risk prison — or worse.

Yet you can’t fully hide the reality that this country’s failed wars have added trillions of dollars to its national debt, even as military spending continues to explode in the most wasteful ways imaginable, while the social infrastructure crumbles.

Clinging Bitterly to Guns & Religion

Today, America clings ever more bitterly to guns and religion. If that phrase sounds familiar, it might be because Barack Obama used it in the 2008 presidential campaign to describe the reactionary conservatism of mostly rural voters in Pennsylvania. Disillusioned by politics, betrayed by their putative betters, those voters, claimed the then-presidential candidate, clung to their guns and religion for solace.

I lived in rural Pennsylvania at the time and recall a response from a fellow resident who basically agreed with Obama, for what else was there left to cling to in an empire that had abandoned its own rural working-class citizens?

Something similar is true of America writ large today. As an imperial power, it clings bitterly to guns and religion. By “guns,” I mean all the weaponry America’s merchants of death sell to the Pentagon and across the world. Indeed, weaponry is perhaps this country’s most influential global export, devastatingly so.

From 2018 to 2022, the U.S. alone accounted for 40 percent of global arms exports, a figure that’s only risen dramatically with military aid to Ukraine. And by “religion,” I mean a persistent belief in American exceptionalism (despite all evidence to the contrary), which increasingly draws sustenance from a militant Christianity that denies the very spirit of Christ and His teachings.

Yet history appears to confirm that empires, in their dying stages, do exactly that: they exalt violence, continue to pursue war and insist on their own greatness until their fall can neither be denied nor reversed. It’s a tragic reality that the journalist Chris Hedges has written about with considerable urgency.

The problem suggests its own solution (not that any powerful figure in Washington is likely to pursue it). America must stop clinging bitterly to its guns — and here I don’t even mean the nearly 400 million weapons in private hands in this country, including all those AR-15 semi-automatic rifles.

By “guns,” I mean all the militarized trappings of empire, including America’s vast structure of overseas military bases and its staggering commitments to weaponry of all sorts, including world-ending nuclear ones. As for clinging bitterly to religion — and by “religion” I mean the belief in America’s own righteousness, regardless of the millions of people it’s killed globally from the Vietnam era to the present moment — that, too, would have to stop.

History’s lessons can be brutal. Empires rarely die well. After it became an empire, Rome never returned to being a republic and eventually fell to barbarian invasions. The collapse of Germany’s Second Reich bred a third one of greater virulence, even if it was of shorter duration. Only its utter defeat in 1945 finally convinced Germans that God didn’t march with their soldiers into battle.

What will it take to convince Americans to turn their backs on empire and war before it’s too late? When will we conclude that Christ wasn’t joking when He blessed the peacemakers rather than the warmongers?

As an iron curtain descends on a failing American imperial state, one thing Americans won’t be able to say is that they weren’t warned.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is “Bracing Views.”

This article is from TomDispatch.

The views expressed are solely those of the authors and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.


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32 comments for “US in Throes of Unexceptional Imperial Decline

  1. Tedder
    June 9, 2023 at 11:40

    I take issue with the characterization of the USSR as an ’empire’. The Soviets inherited the Czarist Empire, but they did not continue it. The title, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, has a meaning. Scratch a liberal, even a good liberal like William Astore, and you will find an anti-communist, and communisms association with the USSR and by extension, the Russian Federation, allows these scholars to be anti-communist lite.
    In particular, Tom Englehart will not concede that Russia faced existential provocation by the West (NATO/US) and by US-proxy Ukraine that could only be faced with force after extensive diplomacy had failed. So, they condemn “Russian aggression” while taking an anti-war stance. This is not good enough because it lets Washington’s neocons ‘off the hook’ and reduces possibility to actually end this war.

    • mgr
      June 9, 2023 at 12:25

      Tedder: Exactly. Spot on on each point.

  2. Camille Gedeon
    June 8, 2023 at 22:08

    Good grasp of history.
    Thank you William and CN

  3. Bostonian
    June 8, 2023 at 18:59

    When recalling the history of World War One, it does not do to ignore the impact of the United States interjecting itself into the catastrophe. After the terrible slaughter of the Somme, Germany offered a peace plan that would essentially have created the EU two generations early. It is believed that US assurance of military aid caused Britain to reject the proposal – does this sound at all like Ukraine now, d’ya think?

    One might also note that the “iron curtain” Churchill complained about so bitterly in 1946 was the very border that he and Stalin and FDR had agreed on at the Teheran, Moscow, and Yalta conferences just a few years earlier. It was also in this speech that Churchill inflated the number of US soldiers’ lives allegedly saved by the atomic attacks on Japan to an even million, the number that is now enshrined in the mythology of “the good war” for many.

  4. Vera Gottlieb
    June 8, 2023 at 10:24

    Nothing is forever…not even the mightiest empire.

  5. Detroit Dan
    June 8, 2023 at 07:47

    Good history!

  6. June 8, 2023 at 04:13

    Empires are almost by definition exploitative and opportunistic. They have no soul. Let us just say, there are no good empires, for all are built so tthe few can walk on the streets paved with the bones of many. But lacking a soul, empires must pretend to have one. In fact, the have no principles. In all greed is good, and they look forward no further tomorrow. Hunger. Greed. Satiation. Shit. Repeat, Each is an interation of the Biblical land of Nod, the land of darkness.

    Hence, the need for delusional mythologies, such as American ‘democracy” . And American “freedom”. Look no further than Biden’s NeoCons. Most recently Blinken in Finland.

  7. June 8, 2023 at 00:56

    The USA should be “building back better” but they are determined to hit bottom and take the whole world down with them . The world community should be pushing back a lot harder than they are. Bullies bully until such time as they are challenged. Americans should be in the streets as they were over the Vietnam .

  8. WillD
    June 7, 2023 at 23:32

    It’s when they get to the point that they genuinely believe that they can prove history wrong, and that their empire won’t collapse like all the others, that you know the decline is well under way.

    This is when the arrogance, delusions and twisted ideological thinking topples them over the edge, so that on the decline they keep denying the reality.

  9. June 7, 2023 at 22:23

    Interesting article and I agree with its concerns. However, I’d be interested in an analysis of the transition from empire to “something else” which may have occurred, or be occurring with the United Kingdom and France. Their empire’s mainly collapsed, but they haven’t really quite fully let go, they just tagged on to the the United States’ empire, which permits them to still act “empirial”, intervening and meddling in the states that emerged from what was once “theirs”.

  10. Jeff Harrison
    June 7, 2023 at 19:51

    Well put. I have only two complaints. One, it was not Russia that put up the iron curtain. It was the US. Two, Russia was not trying to extend their empire when they went into Afghanistan. Whenever I talk about this all I can hear is Princess Leah “No, Luke, don’t it’s a trap”. Indeed it was a trap set by Z-big, a bitter Polish aristocrat whose family lost everything in the communist take over of Poland. There’s two funny things about Afghanistan. One, Russia did more for Afghanistan in the 10 years they were there than the US did in the 20 years we were there. And two, thanks to Z-big and Charlie Parker’s war the Muslim world created Al Qaeda and its offshoots which brought us 9/11 and ripped the mask of benevolence off the US’s face.

    • Andrew Thomas
      June 8, 2023 at 12:15

      Charlie Wilson, not Parker. The great Bird has already been unfairly blamed for making jazz “undanceable.” He needs new further calumny upon his too-soon-deceased head.
      The one aspect of your post that is news to me is the Iron Curtain being the west’s doing. I have never read that before, although nothing shocks me anymore. If you have a source or two for that statement, I would really appreciate your providing them. Thank you.

    • Tedder
      June 9, 2023 at 11:33

      Thanks for making the record straight! Scholars like Astore cannot shake off the conditioning of so many years of propaganda.

  11. lester
    June 7, 2023 at 19:50

    A great essay, Dr. Astore! It couldn’t be better!

  12. Bill Mack
    June 7, 2023 at 19:36

    What you did can not be undone.
    Others of your nationality and gender did not .
    Look for forgiveness from your messiah. It is not coming from me.

  13. Mark Sawyer
    June 7, 2023 at 19:13

    I don’t know how you can describe the American Empire without mentioning capitalism, and in particular, the stranglehold that American corporations have over our media, domestic politics and foreign policy. As if somehow by including the collapse of the Soviet Union in your history of fallen Empires, capitalism can be safely ignored as an historical force? However, the defeat of socialism in the USSR and elsewhere has always been a consequence of capitalist aggression, from the arms race, encirclement and Afghan Mujahideen attacks on the USSR, to CIA interventions against socialist countries in the global south… the violence of American capitalism is a huge part of US militarism. And as long as capitalism goes unchallenged in this country, it will be very hard to eliminate the source of American violence, either at home or abroad.

    • Renate
      June 8, 2023 at 10:51

      So true, wars are always about wealth and power. Today’s corporate elite is the modern industrialized nobility. The USA and Germany were the rising industrial competitors of the British Empire, the cause of WWI.

  14. June 7, 2023 at 18:48

    Thank you CN for publishing this. It is an important essay that all Americans should read, and will undoubtedly be totally ignored by all the people we elected to govern our beautiful land – especially by the President and his advisors, everyone of whom is a war monger. Every single internationally political position has been filled by a militant war promoter, including the State Department, which is even more belligerent than the Pentagon. Anthony Blinkin and Victoria Nuland make a frightening pair along with Presidential advisor Jake Sullivan who comes to us from the CIA. Violently Russophobic Alan Dulles created the CIA with Truman’s permission right after WWII and built into it a visceral hatred of Russia, which has been with us now for over 80 years. It would indeed be helpful if we elected a leader who believed in peace through negotiation rather than a peace that is accomplished by killing and beating everyone up until they do what we say.

  15. Jay
    June 7, 2023 at 18:26

    Lost me there Mr. Astore, when you said you joined the US military during the Reagan era.

    His policies were delusional, both in military terms and in terms of Wall Street and his support (not so tacit) of right wing extremists in the USA.

  16. patricia guerrero guerrero
    June 7, 2023 at 17:59

    The rest of the story is that when empires fail to use the resources they take from the citizens (taxes) to take care of those citizens the empire is destroyed from the inside. The so-called mortgage crisis was actually a land grab where greedy corporations swooped in and bought up homes whose owners were forced into foreclosure by the same forces that benefitted from selling the wonky loans, driving an enormous homeless crisis. The result is anger, despair and hopelessness. And of course now we have daily mass shootings that no politician can or will address with anything other than thoughts and prayers.

    • Alan
      June 8, 2023 at 10:50

      Hear, hear.

  17. mgr
    June 7, 2023 at 17:32

    Excellent. “Ultimately, they are fated to fail. No surprise there, since whatever else such empires may serve, they don’t serve their own people. Their operatives protect themselves at any cost, while attacking efforts at retrenchment or demilitarization as dangerously misguided, if not seditiously disloyal.”

    That hits the nail on the head.

  18. Cy
    June 7, 2023 at 17:23

    imperial Russia and imperial china had to go through a revolution that destroyed their aristocratic elitist background to move to a more balanced society + Europe and the United States have to go through the same process before anything gets better. a society based on cooperation rather than destruction.

  19. Lois Gagnon
    June 7, 2023 at 16:43

    I’ve been saying for a while now, the rude awakening for the people of the US is going to be a doozy. The propaganda in this country is beyond comprehension at this point. And it seems to still be working. If it wasn’t, the revolt by the masses would already have begun. At some point, reality will intrude regardless of what officialdom does.

  20. Paula
    June 7, 2023 at 16:27

    Can only hope it true. Been war mongers and killers of indigenous (like UK), since we got to these shores seeking gold, not freedom from suppression of religion. And whose religion got suppressed. Indigenous. Who was genocidal: those who came. Who has survived thus far thru all the white demon killers? Indigenous. You want a history and culture of your own? You don’t have one unless you adopt the culture of people you tried to kill and the land they still inhabit. People understand so little about dirt/soil/ and how dependent they are on its health. Our country is so sick because we do not recognize the earth, our mother, her soils.

    Maybe if people knew how much their life depended on healthy soils, the war in Ukraine would not make sense nor would many of our other crazy/stupid endeavors. When I travel Europe, I see these buildings that display our idiocy. In USA, Tulsa, OK has a beautiful church built by a woman. We are always trying to get away from our dependence on something totally simple, called SOIL. For some reason, some seem to think it beneath them and damn yes, pun intended.

    • Valerie
      June 8, 2023 at 03:12

      Great post Paula. Spot on.

  21. June 7, 2023 at 15:59

    except forthe almost stupid comment on the allegedly evil soviet “iron curtain”, a phrase churchill stole from the nazis, this was a mostlky good piece offering – again, with the exception of that hopelessly ignorant phrase – more information than can be found in our media in several years.


  22. Charles E. Carroll
    June 7, 2023 at 15:45

    Thank you!

  23. leonied yagupolsky
    June 7, 2023 at 15:42

    “Its response was to erect, in Winston Churchill’s phrase, an “Iron Curtain” behind which it could exploit the peoples of Eastern Europe in a militarized empire that ultimately collapsed due to its wars and its own internal divisions.”

    Very nice, so Soviet Union erected the Iron Curtain, not the west itself – right? bs, sorry
    Which its own wars? except for Afghanistan ? bs again

  24. Doroth Kahn
    June 7, 2023 at 15:34

    Unfortunately the USA while it is deeply wounded is still immensely strong and liable to use its strength to wreak havoc on the planet.

  25. Carolyn L Zaremba
    June 7, 2023 at 13:43

    I stopped reading as soon as you supported the 1619 Project which, as all serious political activists and historians know, is a total falsification of history and complete bollocks. The World Socialist Web Site has exposed the lies and distortion of the 1619 Project and held multiple webinars and interviews with genuine historians who are experts in the American Revolution and Civil War.

    • Tim N
      June 9, 2023 at 12:50

      Yeah, I sagged a little when Astore mentioned the 1619 Project–he should know that it’s historical revisionism of the worst sort. I did read the whole article though, in which he makes several good points about our current state.

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